broken records

Everything we know about civilization . . . whether you date it from Eden or the Buddha or Shakespeare or however you define it, that's all 275 parts per million CO2. We're at 390 parts per million right now.

--Bill McKibben

Anne and I took a little time this week to listen to NPR's program, "Speaking of Faith," which featured a moving interview with Bill McKibben, a professor at Middlebury College who's been advocating for action to address climate change for decades.  The title of the talk was "The Moral Math of Climate Change," and you can listen to it or read the transcript here.  He has founded, which is a global movement to instigate action.

You probably don't need or want any more facts about the way our climate is changing.  You've probably heard it all.  You probably know that this has been the warmest decade on record, the warmest 12 months on record, the warmest spring on record, the warmest June and July on record.  You probably know that Russia is literally on fire, about 10% of it aflame.  That Pakistan's been flooding, and suffering landslides now, with 1500 people dead and hundreds of thousands homeless.  That a chunk of ice three times the size of Manhattan just broke off the Arctic ice shelf.  That the amount of phytoplankton (the marine life that is the essential, necessary base of the aquatic food chain) has been radically depleted--decining 40% since 1950.  We can put all these things together, though we may not want to think about them, and see that we're dramatically affecting the planet.  It's not a theory anymore.  We're breaking records nearly every day. 

And that those of us who insist on talking about climate change can sound like a broken record.  You might be fighting the urge to click on a different website.  But bear with me, because something Bill McKibben said in this interview is worth considering.

Although I grew up in a practicing Catholic family, and attended church and catechism classes every week until I was about 16, I often feel like I'm hearing some of the Bible readings for the first time.  So it was when Bill McKibben discussed the "Book of Job" in the interview:

Everybody knows the story. Job finds himself cursed by God. He's lying in a dung heap at the edge of town, covered with oozing sores. His flocks are dead. His family's dead. You know, he's in a world of hurt.

And his friends arrive to help him work through this, and he keeps lamenting what's going on and calling it unjust. And his friends keep saying, "Oh, no, no. You know, you sinned or one of your children sinned. This is how it works and that's why you're being punished." And Job, much to his credit, is not the patient Job of legend. He keeps demanding that God appear and explain why this thing has happened to him. And God finally does.

And I think the soliloquy that God delivers in the last three chapters of Job I think is the longest sustained speech that God gives anywhere in the Bible… Old Testament or New. And it's a remarkably interesting speech because it doesn't answer any of the questions that Job has set out.

Instead, God gives this incredibly beautiful biologically accurate, crunchy, sexy tour of the physical universe. [About] All the kind of interesting animals and, you know, and [told] in very wild terms. You know, [God] asked Job, "Do you hunt prey for the lion and her cubs? Do you help the vulture find … carrion on which to feast?" "If you're so smart, you tell me, where do I keep the wind? Can you tell the proud waves: 'Here you shall break and no further? ' Do you know where the storms are, the warehouse for the storms?"

Well, you know, after listening to this for two or three chapters, Job basically says, "Sorry I asked." And sits down....

The message seems to be, "Job, you're not the center of things."..."[Y]our questions about justice and things are kind of puny. You're a small part of something very large and beautiful and that should be enough," and for Job it appears to be enough.

So the shocking part in reading it now is realizing that for the first time in human history we're no longer in the position Job's in...Now we just spit right back at God. You know, "Can you tell the proud waves where to break?" "Hell, yes. We think we're going to raise the level of the ocean a couple of meters in the course of this century." "Do you know where the storms are kept?" "Yeah. We're pushing cyclones one after another across the Pacific. You know, we've got our thumb on the scale." In a very short order we [humans] got very, very big. Human beings have always been in Job's position — small — and our job is to figure out how to get smaller again. And I think it's essentially a theological task, at least as much as anything else.

 So I went to read some of that speech that God gives Job, and it's a doozy.  A sample:

Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone
while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?
Who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb,
when I made the clouds its garment and wrapped it in thick darkness,
when I fixed limits for it and set its doors and bars in place,
when I said, 'This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt'?

God's got some attitude!  Listen: "Do you send the lightning bolts on their way? Do they report to you, 'Here we are'?"

I've long thought about the moral dimension of climate change, centered on the notion that we should take care to pass on a liveable planet to future generations.  But there's another moral context here, made visible in Job, that seems worthy of further meditation:  Do we really think we're in charge?  Who are we to mess with God's creation?  We are blundering through the planet, thinking that we know what we're doing.  But we don't.  We clearly don't know how to drill at the bottom of the ocean.  We are only just beginning to glimpse how the oceans, winds, atmosphere, planetary orbit all work together, and we shouldn't be messing with the basic formula for life.  We know that all human life has existed at about 275 parts per million, that that's the magic number for humanity to flourish.  Yet we think we can just flaunt that, somehow, without consequence.  We aren't in charge here, no matter how much our brains and egos would like us to think we are.  We're just a small piece of a majestic puzzle.  A big dose of humility seems appropriate.

But instead of humility, I keep hearing more talk of "geoengineering" to address climate change--giant carbon vacuum cleaners, global domes...I love McKibbens' take on these "solutions":

I mean, I think that physically it's not possible to do that and I also think at some level there's something silly and ignoble and almost blasphemous about trying it. I think that the response we need is to figure out how to restrain ourselves, how to pull ourselves in. It strikes me that religious thinking back at least as far as the Buddha and probably farther, has centered mostly on the idea that we become most fully human when we don't put ourselves at the center of everything.

The world is changing around us, and we should stop arguing about whether or not the sands are flowing through the hourglass.  It's not only a political issue, though of course I pray that our politicians will stop being so spineless.  It's about the place of humanity within this amazing gift of a planet.  Can we curb our appetites to bring ourselves within the parameters for life?  Can we adjust our habits to get back into the flow of history?

One last snippet from Bill McKibben seems appropriate, where he discusses the recent surge of interest in farmers markets and local food:

It takes a lot less energy to move a tomato five miles than 5,000 miles. And not coincidentally, it tastes better. I mean, I traveled 2,000 miles yesterday. I know how I feel. That's also how the tomato feels.

But the real [and interesting] reason... that we like farmers' markets, I think, turns out to be they're different. Sociologists followed shoppers first through the supermarket, then through the farmers' market. Everybody's been to the supermarket. You know how it works. You walk in, you fall into a fluorescent light trance. You visit the stations of the cross around the perimeter of the supermarket. You emerge with your items. That's it. When they followed people around the farmers' market, they were having, on average, 10 times as many conversations per visit.

Cheap fossil fuel, you know, heated the planet. It made us rich. But it also, maybe most profoundly, made us the first kind of our species who've had no practical need of our neighbors for anything (italics mine). We tell ourselves, you know, what a great chic thing we've invented, the farmers' market.

In fact, that's how all human beings shopped for food until 50 years ago and 80 percent of the planet still does. No wonder it feels good. I mean, this is what we're built for.

This is, for me, the crux of the matter: what are we built for?  Are we built for relationship, for community, for neighborliness?  Are we built to appreciate beauty, to experience awe, to feel love and gratitude for life?  These seem, to me, to be the essence of being human.  Our culture's just gotten so disconnected from the basic impulse of life, and from one another, and we're in danger of not only breaking all records, but of breaking the foundational formulas, the conditions that allow life to exist on this planet.

One of the biggest surprises of the past year on the farm is how much pleasure I've gotten out of simplifying my life: getting rid of the TV, growing food, shelling peas, making my own yogurt and cheese, telling stories with friends, rising and resting with the sun.  Things that humanity has done for millenia.  Turns out that stuff feels good--like it's part of our DNA, part of our human makeup.  Maybe we would do well to remember that we're part of a long history of humanity, and that our ancestors' way of life had value.  What if we all shut off the lights when it got dark?  Would we fall in love with the stars, with the universe?  Would we rest, and fall in love with one another again?

I'm reminded of a quote by Paul Hawken:

"Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of course. The world would become religious overnight. We would be ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead the stars come out every night, and we watch television."